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A Gift for Democracy in North Carolina

By Bob Phillips, Common Cause North Carolina

Here we are in late December in the midst of the holiday season and the eve of a big election year – the time of the year in which the mad rush to the malls by shoppers is perhaps only rivaled by the mad rush for campaign cash by political candidates. Trouble is, long after the holiday sales are over, the candidates’ chase for dollars will long continue.

Our big money campaign finance system is not healthy for democracy. It rewards candidates who build the biggest campaign war-chest as, more than 90% of the time, the candidate who spends the most wins the election. 

It’s a system that forces candidates to spend an inordinate amount of time raising money. It is a system that limits the number of people willing to run for office. A system that limits the amount of contact time a candidate has with the public.

And worst of all, it is a system that creates for the candidate, awkward and potentially harmful obligations to their major campaign contributors. The ongoing scandals in Raleigh and Washington are classic examples of the corrosive impact big money politics can have on our democracy.

But the good news is 2008 may be a pivotal year for meaningful campaign finance reform.

In fact, an increasing number of North Carolina elected officials at the local, state and federal levels are proving to be leaders in pushing for alternatives to our current campaign finance system.

For instance, Chapel Hill will become the first town in North Carolina to be given permission by the state legislature to experiment with public financing for its local elections. Town councilors are now ironing out the details of the program which will take effect for the 2009 and 2011 elections. Chapel Hill’s experience will be important to watch as municipal elections across North Carolina continue to soar in cost.

Then at the state level, public financing of political campaigns steps out of the shadows in 2008, to include three Council of State offices. Candidates for State Auditor, State Insurance Commissioner and State School Superintendent will all have the option to avoid the burden of the money chase in next year’s elections.

The program is similar to our state’s current judicial public financing program, which in two election cycles has seen 9 of 11 winning candidates for State Supreme Court and NC Court of Appeals run as public financed candidates.  

Once candidates prove their viability by raising a set amount of small dollar contributions, they are eligible for public funding. They simply agree to no longer raise money or spend more than the amount of public funds they have received.  Matching money for candidates facing opponents running the old fashion way is available if needed.

Finally, there is also movement for public financing at the federal level with two North Carolina congressmen leading the way.

Rep. David Price is sponsoring legislation to overhaul and revive the existing presidential public financing program, created more than 30 years ago after the Watergate scandal.  Price’s proposal provides more funding to the program which has increasingly been ignored by major presidential candidates who now raise far more money from wealthy special interests than what they may receive from the public fund. The Price bill would make public financing more attractive to candidates.

And then, there is the Fair Elections Now Act, legislation to be introduced next year which would establish the option of public financing for Congressional candidates. Rep. Walter Jones announced he will endorse this bill, becoming the first member of North Carolina’s congressional delegation to do so. Hopefully, others representing our state in Washington will join him.

Representatives Jones, Price, the town councilors of Chapel Hill, statewide judicial candidates, candidates for State Auditor, State Insurance Commissioner and State School Superintendent, are all ambassadors for campaign finance reform across North Carolina in 2008.

If these fine folks have success in the coming year, it will be one of the greatest gift our state could have—progress toward a campaign finance system free of wealthy special interest money.

Bob Phillips is the Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina [1]